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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

by Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit Book 1, Chapter 1 Summary

Sun and Shadow

  • It's 30 years ago. That means that novel is set in the 1820s, rather than Dickens's present-day of the 1850s – mainly because that is when Dickens's own father was imprisoned in Marshalsea prison for debt and little boy Dickens was forced to work in a factory instead of going to school. It was traumatic for him, and he never really got over it.
  • So it's a summer day in Marseilles. It's crazy hot and the sun is horrible. The only place it doesn't reach is a jail cell in a prison.
  • The cell is gross and dirty and generally dungeon-y.
  • Monsieur Rigaud is fancy-looking. He is nervous and keeps waiting for the jailer to bring food. He wakes up Cavalletto, who has been sleeping on the floor calmly.
  • Cavalletto somehow always knows what time it is and has a great sense of direction. He draws a little map of Marseilles and another little map of the prison on the dirt floor.
  • Finally the jailer comes. But not alone, since it's apparently Bring Your Daughter to Your Incredibly Inappropriate Work day, and his four-year-old daughter is with him.
  • She helps him feed the prisoners. Rigaud gets all sorts of fancy gourmet treats. Cavalletto gets some old bread and water. (Why? Well, quick brain snack: back in the day, the state would only pay for the bare minimum food and drink for prisoners – basically, just enough to keep them alive. Anything else prisoners had to pay for out of their own pockets.)
  • The jailer says Rigaud's trial will be this afternoon. Cavalletto is all, what about me? But the jailer has no info on that.
  • Jailer and daughter leave, and the prisoners eat. Cavalletto waits on Rigaud, rolling him a cigarette and dealing with his wine bottle.
  • Rigaud then starts his nervous pacing again. He asks Cavalletto to yet again tell him that he (Rigaud) is clearly a gentleman. Since Cavalletto has just been waiting on him hand and foot, he obviously thinks so. They met in the cell nine weeks ago, and from the first moment they'd naturally fallen into a master and servant relationship.
  • Rigaud is psyched to be declared a gentleman and busts out his story.
  • Turns out, he married the rich and beautiful young widow of an innkeeper. But her money was legally tied up with her family, so he couldn't get to it without going through her. This was irritating, so he beat her up several times, and then one day ... well, he says that one day they went for a walk on the cliffs, and she got really mad and jumped to her death. He's in jail, though, because maybe she didn't so much jump as he pushed her.
  • Rigaud is immediately portrayed as evil and unpleasant as can be, so we're going with the he-killed-his-wife version on this one.
  • Cavalletto's crime is some low-level smuggling.
  • Finally the guards come to get Rigaud. There are a bunch of them to guard him on the way to the court – there's a crowd outside calling for his head.
  • Cavalletto is obviously psyched that the sociopath is gone. He finally relaxes in the cell and goes to sleep.

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